Leftover Turkey Gumbo

November 25, 2012 – This Thanksgiving I was thankful for leftovers.  I needed comfort food after watching my Saints fall to my wife’s 49ers 31-21 with Drew Brees sacked five times.  A bad day for the Who Dat Nation.  I was also thankful that she was kind enough not to gloat.  A couple of cheerful “Whoops!” and she left it at that.

Fortunately I’d had the foresight earlier in the day to make a pot of gumbo, my go-to comfort food and favorite use of leftover Thanksgiving turkey. 

Gumbo is Cajun food.  It’s the food of country people. The Cajuns are descended from the Acadians, the French Canadians who settled in south Louisiana after their exodus from Canada in the 18th century.  It was the food of a people who weren’t wealthy, who had no food to waste.  Consequently the great Cajun dishes we know today, such as gumbo and jambalaya, were made up of whatever was on hand.

I grew up eating my grandmother’s squirrel gumbo.  And the gumbo I most remember my mother making was chicken.  The best I ever made combined the finest of my native state with that of my adopted home, gumbo made with Alaska king crab.  Gumbo can be made from most any meat or seafood.  It’s perfect for using up leftover Thanksgiving turkey.

The difference between a soup and a gumbo is the roux.  Gumbo without a roux is soup.  Gumbo with a well made roux is, well, terrific.

 Gordon’s Leftover Turkey Gumbo

 ½ C peanut oil                                                                 1 bunch green onions, chopped

½ C flour                                                                           6 cloves garlic minced

1 heaping T dried sage                                                     1 lb. andouille sausage, sliced

1 heaping T crushed rosemary                                          Leftover turkey

1 heaping T dried thyme                                                    6 C chicken broth (or water)

½ C chopped parsley                                                         2 C okra, sliced

1 onion, chopped                                                               Salt & pepper to taste

2 stalks celery, chopped                                                    Rice

1 bell pepper, chopped                                                      File’ (pronounced fee’-lay)

First, make a roux.  This is the way I do it.  Heat the peanut oil in a heavy stock pot over high heat until it’s hot but not smoking.  To determine when it’s hot enough, hold your hand about two inches above the oil.  If it feels hot, it is.  Add the flour and stir.  A spatula with a straight edge is best.  I have a wooden spatula that I’ve used for years and dread the day it finally disintegrates.  The objective is to brown the flour until it’s very dark and aromatic without burning it.  To do that you have to stir.  And keep stirring.

When the roux starts to smoke, take it off the fire.  Continue stirring until the smoke subsides.  The roux will continue to darken while it’s off the heat.  Return the pot to the fire, still stirring, and repeat the process.  Usually about the third, or maybe the fourth, time you move the pot away from the heat you’ll reach the color and aroma you’re seeking.  It’s a dark reddish brown, a mahogany color, with a rich, nutty aroma.  Return the pot to the fire and reduce the heat to medium.

Now here’s one of the secrets of a great gumbo:  Add the spices to the roux now.  Toss in the parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.  (Yes, like the Simon & Garfunkel song.)  Stir to thoroughly incorporate the spices into the roux.  Keep stirring as the roux soaks up the flavors of the spices.

And here’s another gumbo secret:  Season in layers.  Add a little salt and pepper to the roux as it’s absorbing the other spices.  If you want a little heat in your gumbo, add a little cayenne pepper each time you season.

Add the vegetables including the trinity (onion, bell pepper and celery) along with the green onions and garlic.  Stir to coat the vegetables with the roux.  Cook until the vegetables have begun to soften, about seven to ten minutes, stirring occasionally.  Season again with a little salt and pepper.

Add the andouille sausage.   (By the way, it’s pronounced an-doo’-ee.) If you can’t find andouille a good kielbasa is a fair substitute.  Stir to thoroughly combine the sausage into the roux with the vegetables.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sausage begins to brown.

Add the leftover turkey.  If you’re using parts like the thigh, drumstick or wings that are still attached to the bone toss the bones in, too.  They’ll make the broth better.  Add the chicken broth.  If you don’t have any chicken broth water will work just fine.  Toss in the okra.   Season with about a teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Bring to a full rolling boil. Turn the heat to low and simmer for at least an hour, until the meat falls apart when you lift it with a spoon and the liquid has cooked out of the okra.

Taste for seasoning occasionally through the simmering process.  Add salt about a teaspoon at a time until it tastes right.  My theory is you can always add salt but it’s hard to take it out.

Turn off the heat and let the gumbo cool.  When it has cooled enough that you can handle the turkey  remove the meat with tongs.  Discard any bones and shred the turkey into bite size pieces.  Return the meat to the pot.  Prior to serving warm the gumbo over low heat.

Prepare the rice using a rice cooker.  My rice cooker is the stove.    Add a teaspoon of salt to two cups of water in a sauce pan and bring the water to a boil.  Add one cup of rice and turn the heat down as low as it’ll go.  Cover and let the rice simmer for 20 minutes.  Do not uncover until the rice is done.

Spoon rice into a bowl.  Ladle the gumbo over the rice.

Serve the file’ powder on the side.  File’ is ground sassafras leaves.  It is a thickener and also adds a very pleasant, subtle flavor.  I don’t put it in the gumbo during the cooking process because it has a tendency to form itself into clumps.  My preference is let people add it to their bowls as they wish.

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Bon Temps!  And Geaux Saints!

Mio Restaurant

Novmeber 14, 2012 – It takes a special person to be a great restaurateur.  Essentially you’re hosting a party every day.  You just can’t do it unless you love it.  You have to be born to it.  Manuel Iguina was born to it.

I arrived at Mio ten minutes early and offered  to wait in the bar until my friend showed up.  A man in a red sweater who was standing near the reservations desk stepped up and suggested I’d be more comfortable if they showed me to our table.  He was so friendly that I suddenly felt like I was a guest in his home rather than in one of D.C.’s best restaurants.

I was shown to a comfortable table looking down on the open kitchen.  My friend, longtime colleague and sometimes business partner Chris Colwell of Cincinnati showed up before I was in my chair.  As we were catching each other up on our various adventures since we’d last seen each other the man in the red sweater stopped by our table to welcome us and introduce himself.  He was Manuel Iguina, owner of Mio.  This time both Chris and I felt like we were guests in his home.

That warm hospitality didn’t happen by accident.  Manuel and his wife Karla wanted to create exactly that atmosphere when they opened Mio in 2007.  And they wanted to present the foods of Manuel’s native Puerto Rico, Karla’s native Mexico and the other countries that make up what we know as Latin America.  Mio means my or mine in Spanish but Manuel and Karla expand that small word into so much more.   A sense of communidad.  The comfortable feeling of familia.  Community.  Family.  To Manuel and Karla Mio stands for mine, yours, ours.  Salud!

The resident chef for 2012, Puerto Rico born Giovanna Huyke, showcases exactly that philosophy in her work.  In her native land she is fondly called the “Julia Child of Puerto Rico.”  She is bringing the native foods of the Caribbean and Latin America, many of which were unheard of in U.S. restaurants until recently, into the mainstream.

Chris and I were there during the restaurant’s first mofongo festival.  A mofongo is a small ball of mashed plantain, Puerto Rican style.  Unfortunately we weren’t there for one of the weekly Puerto Rican Fridays when Chef Huyke oversees the roasting of a suckling pig.  Even so we experienced that feeling of communidad and familia that Manuel provides so effortlessly.

I ordered a red wine sangria to sip while we waited for our food.  It arrived with chunks of apple and mango floating in it.  Deliciously refreshing.  While I was enjoying the sangria, our waiter showed up with an unexpected chef’s selection.  He told us the items on the small plates were the sort of things that Puerto Ricans might eat at a beach picnic. The dumpling filled with ground pork was spicy and stimulating.  The ball of yucca stuffed with cheese was smooth and soothing.  Perfect snack foods with  sangria.

I wanted to try Mio’s version of plantains.  It was, after all, the mofongo festival.  So I ordered shrimp with mofongos.  My plate had three large citrus glazed shrimp, each resting on a mofongo, a fluffy ball of sweetened plantain.  Chris had ordered a plate of pan roasted calamari with mushrooms, chilis and garlic.  I traded him a shrimp and a mofongo for some of his calamari, which I found to be a spicy foil to my sweet dish.  Terrific times two.

I was more traditional in selecting an entrée.  Lamb chops, served fork tender and perfectly rare accompanied by a tomato marmalade, mashed yucca and grilled asparagus.  The yucca I found to be similar to a starchy potato, nicely contradicting the acidity of the marmalade.

Manuel, ever the attentive host, had stopped by our table a second time during dinner just to check on us.  As we were leaving the restaurant, he and I talked a bit more about his philosophy with Mio and about Puerto Rican food in general.

Later we traded e-mails.  I thanked him for a memorable evening.

His reply to me was simple:  “Mi casa es tu casa.”  Communidad.  Familia.  Mio.

 

Eggplant Stuffed with Lobster

November 10, 2012 – Eggplant has been associated with Louisiana since it arrived with Italian immigrants in the 19th century.  And yet I don’t remember eating it as a child.  I asked my mother about that recently.  She said she cooked it, usually battered and fried, but I wouldn’t eat it.  It’s not the kind of thing that appeals to a child.  It’s a vegetable.

We have begun experimenting with eggplant in our kitchen and have found that it’s a very versatile vegetable.  It doesn’t have a strong flavor on its own so it lends itself to treatment in various ways.  One night we decided to try it with a seafood stuffing.   In Louisiana it’s usually stuffed with shrimp or crab.  But we wanted something a little different.  We wanted lobster.

Louisiana recipes very often begin by sautéing onion, bell pepper and celery, known as the “trinity.”  In this recipe we use a red bell pepper for color and add a little green onion and garlic.  We also use plain bread crumbs because we’re making a stuffing.  The plain breadcrumbs soak up liquid more efficiently than the Panko crumbs that we prefer for other purposes.

As to marinara sauce, you can make your own if you wish.  I just got a high quality pre-made sauce at the grocery store.  A lot easier that way.

Here’s our recipe.

Eggplant Stuffed with Lobster

(for two)

1 purple eggplant                                         1 T fresh thyme, chopped

1 stick of butter                                             2 T fresh basil, chopped

1 medium onion, diced                                 1 lobster tail (2/3 -3/4 lb.  If smaller, get two)

1 stalk celery, diced                                      1 C chicken stock

½ red bell pepper                                          Seasoning to taste

3 cloves garlic, minced                                  Bread crumbs

3 green onions, sliced                                   2 bay leaves

¼ C parsley, chopped                                  Marinara sauce

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise.  Scoop out the center of each to create a shell.  Chop the eggplant that you’ve scooped out and set it aside.

Remove the lobster meat from the tail.  It’s actually easy to do.  Using a pair of kitchen scissors, cut through the thin membrane on the underside of the lobster tail.  Then cut through the tougher top shell.  Pull the two sides apart and the meat will just pop right out.  Chop it into bite-sized pieces.

Melt the butter in a heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium high heat.  Add onions, celery, bell pepper, garlic and green onions.  Saute until the vegetables begin to soften, four or five minutes.  Add the chopped eggplant and continue to cook until it’s tender, about 15 minutes.  Add the parsley, thyme, basil, lobster and chicken stock.  Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce it to a simmer.  Add seasoning to taste.  Our current favorite seasoning is Slap Yo’ Mama.  If you have a favorite use it.  Or salt and pepper to taste will work, too.

Remove the mixture from the heat and stir in the bread crumbs about ¼ cup at a time. Keep adding bread crumbs until the liquid has been absorbed and you’ve reached a stuffing-like consistency.  Fill the eggplant shells with the stuffing and press a bay leaf into each.

Layer the bottom of an oven proof dish with an inch or so of marinara sauce.  Set the stuffed eggplant shells into the pool of marinara.  Cover the dish and bake for about 45 minutes.  Uncover and cook for another five or ten minutes until the eggplant is lightly browned.

Remove the bay leaves and serve the stuffed eggplant with the marinara sauce.

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As we say in Louisiana, Bon Temps!  Good Times!

Thunder Valley Casino and High Steaks Steakhouse

November 7-8, 2012 – My wife loves casinos.  I’m not fond of them.

Every time my wife enters a casino she’s convinced she’s going to win the jackpot.  I’m pretty sure there’s no one in a casino who wishes me well.

We drove across central California on a beautiful fall day en route to Thunder Valley Casino.  At some point we passed a billboard sponsored by PETA that said “Pork chops stop a heart. Go Vegan.”   It made me hungry for, well, pork chops.  Preferably smothered in gravy.

It was a little tricky finding the casino.  We skirted the edge of Sacramento and then Roseville.  We found ourselves in the middle of open land and thought we might be lost.  Then we saw a green highway sign that said simply “CASINO” followed immediately with a similar sign that said “LANDFILL.”  We drove on.  Soon we saw another “CASINO” sign, again followed by “LANDFILL.”  We turned right and felt better when we saw just a “CASINO” sign.  “LANDFILL” must have been to the left.

Just past the last sign the casino itself came into sight, a beautiful resort building that literally sits in the middle of nothing.  There was some sort of industrial complex a couple of miles away in one direction; just empty land everywhere else.  To the right of the main building was a large, inviting pool area complete with cabanas.  In front was a fountain with a sculpture of a Native American, spear in hand, eternally searching the shallow water for fish.

Our visit didn’t start well.  My wife had signed us up for one of the resort’s room packages when the young lady with whom she spoke told her we would each get $25 in credit for the slots.  But the woman  at the hotel’s front desk insisted that we got only $25 for the two of us.  When we said that wasn’t what we were promised, the woman smirked and said, “Well, we can pull the tape and hear exactly what you were told.”  Wrong thing to say.  “Why don’t you do that,” I replied, grinning right back at her.  She called her supervisor.

The supervisor was less smirky, more professional.  He said policy required them to listen to the tape and that he would get in touch with us very quickly.  Sure enough we soon had a message from him saying that we had heard correctly and that while he wasn’t allowed to give us another $25 in slots credit he would deduct the same amount from our room charge.  My wife, who is the toughest negotiator I’ve ever known, was happy.

Our room was luxurious.  Large.  Comfortably furnished.  Beautiful view of, well, nothing, but still a view.  Huge bathroom with granite and tile everywhere, separate shower and Jacuzzi tub.  We were both happy.

We headed for the casino.  My wife took her gambling money and off she went.  Based on my philosophy about casinos I had budgeted myself a far lesser amount.  It was gone in less than ten minutes.  I wandered off to watch the play at the Texas Hold’em tables.  Thought about joining in but hey, I’d already gone through my gambling budget for the night.

I answered the call from my wife and could barely hear her above the “ding…ding…ding” in the background.  Come quick, she said.  She’d hit a big one and wanted me to see it.  I have to admit it is pretty exciting when one of those machines starts dinging away.  I watched her machine rack up several hundred quarters before wandering off again to let her chase the jackpot.

I found the Falls Bar, one of several bars in the casino.  The Falls Bar is all that a casino bar should be.  It’s named for the water cascading down sheets of glass that make up the walls in several places.  I ordered a chocolate martini.  I asked the bartender for his recipe.  Turns out he makes them exactly as I do (equal amounts of vodka and crème de cacao) with the addition of a little Bailey’s Irish Cream.  Excellent.  So good, in fact, that when my wife joined me a short time later she decided to forego her favorite chardonnay and have the chocolate martini as well.  I ordered a second.

I asked her how her luck was going.  She said she’d gone through the small jackpot she’d hit but showed me a ticket for exactly the amount she’d started with.  Not bad, I thought.  She’d been playing for a couple of hours and hadn’t lost any money.

While we were in the Falls Bar we decided to try the card they’d given her with the $25 credit in slots play.  We couldn’t figure out how to get it to work.  We consulted the directions they’d given her but they were so complicated as to be no help at all.  A lady sitting beside us, a casino regular, tried to help but she couldn’t figure it out either.  The bartender called in a casino person who went rapidly through an even more complicated explanation before wandering away.  Apparently the deal was that in order to get the credit we had to put some money in first.  That didn’t sound like free slots play to me.  We gave up on the $25, which is what I suspect the casino wanted us to do in the first place.

We struck up a conversation with the helpful lady sitting beside us.  She said she lives seven miles away and she’s here every week with her two daughters.  “My husband would die a second time if he knew how often I was here,” she laughed.  She said two months prior she had won a Volkswagen but couldn’t afford the taxes so had taken cash instead.  She gave $1,000 to each of her daughters because, she said, one of them had done that for her when the daughter had won big.

We decided it was time to take a break and have dinner.  We hadn’t hit the big jackpot at the slots but unknowingly we were about to strike pure gold at the High Steaks Steakhouse.

Our waiter was named Ebon.  “Ebony and drop the y,” he told us.  He was a professional, one of those people who guide you helpfully through a visit to a new restaurant without been intrusive.  He knew his business and we enjoyed getting to know him.

The High Steaks Steakhouse, unexpectedly in a casino restaurant, does all those little things which make a memorable experience.  We were started with a chef’s selection, a spoonful of deliciously refreshing chilled ginger and carrot soup.

We ordered bacon wrapped shrimp to share as an appetizer.  Far exceeding our expectation it came with a honey mustard, brandy and orange marmalade sauce that left us excited for the next course.

My wife loves potatoes au gratin.  It’s what she’d request for a last meal.  As she often does, she ordered potatoes au gratin as her entrée.  Not me.  I’m going for it.  I ordered a bacon wrapped filet.  It was becoming a baconalia evening.

What arrived at our table within a few minutes  wasn’t a steak so much as it was a roast, cooked perfectly rare.  My wife had some of it.  I had most of the remainder.  There was plenty.  We could have shared with the three people at the table next to us.  It was accompanied by a reduced balsamic shallot, a little tartness to compliment the heartiness of the steak.

Amazingly enough after that huge steak I was ready for dessert.  Though not usually a great fan of cheesecake, on that evening the lemon cheesecake sounded like just the thing to top off the meal.  Ebon brought us a light, almost airy, cheesecake nestled between pools of lemon curd sauce and berry compote, garnished with candied lemon peel.  My wife helped with the cheesecake, too.

Ebon cleared the dishes from the table and, as if all of the above wasn’t enough, brought out the grand finale, another chef’s selection, this one a generous bit of salted chocolate caramel bark.  It was, he assured us, made in house as are all their desserts.

The manager of the High Steaks Steakhouse, Manuel Dos Santos, stopped by the table to introduce himself and ask if we had enjoyed our meal.  We were enthusiastic in our response and in our praise for Ebon’s professional services.  Manuel told us that Ebon was among their best, that recently when he and the chef had sat at table as customers to test their staff’s customer service performance it was Ebon they asked to serve them.

After dinner I returned to the Falls Bar, sipping on a soft drink until my wife came in to join me.  She hadn’t hit the jackpot.   And I didn’t even care.

 

 

 

 

 

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My Wife’s Birthday Dinner

November 4, 2012 – My wife didn’t want to do anything on her birthday.  She didn’t want a big celebration.  She didn’t want a gift.

“Just give me a nice card,” she said.

Sorry.  Can’t do it.  I could pass on the celebration, at her request.  But I love birthdays and Christmas.  Just don’t have it in me to do nothing.  She got a card.  And a gift.  And if she didn’t want me to at least take her out for a nice birthday dinner, I’d bring it to her.

 My Wife’s Birthday Dinner Menu

 Appletinis

Filet Mignon

French Fried Asparagus

 We started the evening, at her request, with appletinis.  I love martinis and can make a mean one.  But I had never made an appletini before.  I did a little research and a little experimentation.  Wow!   Appletinis.  Here’s my version.

 Gordon’s Appletinis

Three ounces vodka

Two ounces DeKuyper Sour Apple Pucker Schnapps

One ounce apple cider

The Big Apple flavored Cocktail Candy, which can be found in good liquor stores

1/4 of a fresh lime

1 green apple cut into quarter inch slices

Two frosty martini glasses

Cocktail shaker

Crushed ice

Put the martini glasses in the freezer the day before so they’re nice and frosty when you’re ready to make your appletinis.  At our house the martini glasses are always in the freezer.

Pour the vodka, Schnapps and cider into a cocktail shaker about half full of crushed ice.  Give it a good shaking.  I always shake martinis 20 times.  Don’t know why.  Just feels like the right rhythm.

Cover a saucer or plate a little bigger than the martini glasses with the Big Apple Cocktail Candy.  Run the lime around the rim of the glasses just to moisten.  Roll the moistened rims of the glasses in the apple-flavored sugar enough to cover them lightly, or to taste.

Pour the appletinis into the chilled martini glasses.  Garnish with slices of green apple.

Perfect.  Absolutely delicious.  So apple-y you could almost hear the crunch of biting into an apple.

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I know exactly how my wife likes her steaks.  More often than not I prepare them on the stove in a cast iron skillet.  She likes a dry rub on steaks and prefers them medium rare.

 Filet Mignon

Two steaks cut from a tenderloin,  1 ½ – 2 inches thick

Seasoning (Our current favorite is called Slap Yo’ Mama and yeah, it’s a little spicy.)

Olive oil

Cast iron skillet

Season the steak liberally, or to taste, with your choice of seasoning.  Rub the seasoning into the meat so that it is thoroughly covered.  Allow the steaks to sit for ten or 15 minutes to let the seasoning seep into the meat.

Pour a little olive oil into the skillet and thoroughly coat the bottom.  Use a paper towel to wipe up any excess.  You just want enough oil in the pan to prevent the steak from sticking.  Or you can use a spray if you wish.

Heat the skillet over high heat until it’s hot but not smoking.  When it’s hot, place the steak in the pan.  Let it cook for five minutes and then turn for five minutes more.  Place the steak on a plate and tent with foil.  Let it sit again for five or ten minutes.

I repeat the process with my steak except I only cook it for three minutes per side.  I like my steaks rare.

In our kitchen with our stove that creates a perfectly cooked, beautifully seared steak. You might have to experiment a bit with timing and temperature to get just the right results for your taste.

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I wanted an accompaniment that was a little different.  Something she would love but hadn’t had before.  She loves foods that are crunchy.  Thought I’d try asparagus with a twist.

I used Panko crumbs in this recipe for a reason.  Panko crumbs are processed differently than other types of bread crumbs.  They are flakier, which offers a larger cooking surface per crumb.  That means they will  brown more efficiently and be crunchier than other bread crumbs.

I used peanut oil in this recipe.  In our kitchen we have peanut oil and olive oil.  For the purpose of deep frying I use the peanut oil.  It has a lower flashpoint than most other oils and yet responds more efficiently to heat control.  It also is tasteless so unlike olive oil adds no flavor enhancement.

 French Fried Asparagus

 1 bunch of asparagus (thicker stalks are better for French frying.)

4 eggs, beaten

1 C flour

Granulated garlic to taste

Salt & pepper to taste

1 C Panko crumbs

Peanut oil

Candy thermometer

Break the woody ends off the asparagus by simply holding an end in each hand and snapping. It’ll break where it’s supposed to break.

Place the beaten eggs, flour and Panko crumbs into three separate bowls or containers, each wide enough to allow the asparagus to fit lengthwise.  Season the flour with granulated garlic, salt and pepper to taste.

Pour the oil into a large saucepan, again large enough to allow the asparagus to fit lengthwise.  Heat the oil until it reaches 350 degrees as shown on the candy thermomenter.  Check the temperature of the oil between batches to keep it at 350.

Cook the asparagus in small batches so they aren’t crowded in the oil.  You don’t want them sticking together.

Dip the asparagus into the beaten eggs.   Dust with the seasoned flour, shaking off any excess.  Dip them again into the eggs, then into the bread crumbs, coating them thoroughly.

Lay the breaded asparagus gently into the hot oil and fry until they are nicely browned, about four minutes.  Remove them from the oil and place on a plate covered with paper towels to let them drain.

Repeat the process until you’re out of asparagus.

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Happy Birthday, Sweetheart!

Long Branch Saloon

October 18, 2012 – I have no idea when the Long Branch Saloon opened in south Anchorage.  From the outside the weather-beaten old building looks like the Alaskan roadhouses that were scattered around the state when I got there many years ago.  It’s where Raider fans congregate on game day.  It’s a sleazy bar.  Raider fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

There’s a well-used pool table on the right as you enter.  On the left is the bar, which extends the length of the room.  Plenty of room for elbow leaning.  And there’s neon everywhere.  Neon beer signs.  Sports teams in neon.  My favorite was the one at the far end of the room that showed a whale’s tail disappearing into blue neon waves with simply the word Alaska glowing beneath the waves.

There’s a small stage for live music and half a dozen tall, bar tables scattered around it.  The faux leather on each of the stools at every table was cracked and torn.  Only one of the tables was occupied.  I claimed the one with the next best stools and waited for Todd Hoppe and his wife, Wendy.  Todd is CEO of Bristol Bay Telephone Cooperative in King Salmon.  He’s been a client and a friend for a long time.  He wears a long ponytail every day and plays the guitar whenever he can.  He and Wendy are both musicians.  When they perform professionally Wendy plays 12 string guitar and Todd plays electric bass.  They both sing or, as Todd tells it, Wendy sings and he tries.

I knew Todd liked beef because I had taken him to Hill Country in Washington, D.C., and watched him devour a plate piled with brisket.  I figured he would appreciate the Long Branch Saloon.

Now here’s the thing about the Long Branch:  It’s one of the best places in Anchorage for burgers and sandwiches.  Back behind the neon and the beer signs and the racks of televisions and the bar is a kitchen that bakes bread every day and turns out hamburger buns that are just terrific.  Firm enough to contain a generous beef patty and meltingly soft to the bite.  Those hamburger buns are more than just the bread holding the meat.  They’re an intimate part of the complete sandwich experience.

Todd and Wendy both ordered the prime rib sandwich.  I can’t resist hot peppers so I had the jalapeno burger.  The Long Branch also slices fresh potatoes every day for fries.  None of those dump’em out of the bag frozen things.  All three of us ordered fries.

Real potatoes.  Real fries.  Slabs of beef sandwiched in freshly baked bread in a sleazy bar in south Anchorage.  Perfect.

 

 

El Tango

October 17, 2012 – We sat in the car in the parking lot in midtown Anchorage waiting for El Tango to open, my son David, daughter-in-law Amber, grandson Quinn, granddaughter Remy and me.  We got there at 4:50.  The sign on the door said the restaurant opened at 5:00.  Amber’s job requires her to be at her desk by 6:00 a.m. so when we dine together during the week it’s always an early dinner.

The sign on the wall said they’re an Argentinian and Caribbean restaurant.   Argentinian means beef and I’m always good with that.  Caribbean conjures up exotic preparations of seafood and that works, too.

At three minutes til five the neon “Open” sign flashed on.  We were shown to a table where five year old Quinn was settled into his booster seat, 18 month old Remy into her high chair and the three adults into, well, adult seats.  On the wall to my left was one of those colorful Caribbean paintings that I have always enjoyed.  This one was much as others I’ve seen:  a modest whitewashed house set on the banks of a river; a young woman feeding a flock of five chickens in the yard; clothes drying on a line strung from a tree to the house; three men in a canoe paddling along the river in the background.  Not great art.  Just a pleasant little domestic scene in bright colors.

On the wall to the right was an autographed poster of Diego Maradona.  I don’t follow soccer and had no idea who he is.  David’s knowledge of sports is encyclopedic so I wasn’t surprised to find that he knew all about Maradona.  I now know that, despite struggles with drug addiction, the Argentinian is widely considered to be the greatest soccer player ever and since his retirement has had success as a manager.  The autograph offered authenticity to El Tango’s claim on Argentinian heredity.

I was a bit leery when the waiter named three appetizers that weren’t available that day. It’s not a good sign when a restaurant is out of that many menu items.   But I wasn’t considering any of the three so I didn’t take it personally.  We ordered fried mozzarella to occupy Quinn and Remy, and both Columbian and Argentinian empanadas for the adults.  Remy especially had a grand time tearing the mozzarella like string cheese and grinning at Granddad through the marinara sauce with which she painted her face.

The vote in favor of the Argentinian over the Columbian empanadas was unanimous. Both versions are a mixture of ground meat, herbs and spices encased in a dough and fried.  All three of us found the coarse grind of the meat in the Argentinian version to be more substantial, more satisfying and the flour based dough lighter and tastier.  The meat filling the Columbian empanada was smoother, creamier, and was wrapped in a heavier dough made from corn meal.  The Argentinian version reminded me of the Natchitoches meat pies made in central Louisiana that both David and I love and would eat more often if they didn’t take so much time and effort to make.  OK, so maybe the similarity prejudiced David and me but Amber doesn’t have our long history with Natchitoches meat pies so her vote was pure.

David and Amber both opted to go Argentinian and ordered steaks.  I decided to explore the Caribbean side of the menu and sample fried plantains stuffed with shrimp.  I had never had fried plantains.  I don’t know exactly what I expected.  They look sort of like a banana so I guess I was thinking more along the lines of a banana taste, sort of an unsweetened banana pudding with shrimp.  Not even close.

The plate in front of me contained a mound of something that looked like it had been formed in a bowl and the bowl upended to plate the dish.  Turns out that’s exactly what it was.  As the waiter explained to me the chef cooks the plantains, mashes them, mixes them with fried pork rind, butter and salt, and then presses the mixture into a bowl.  A well is made in the center of the mixture and boiled shrimp are stuffed into it before the whole thing is turned upside down and slipped from the bowl to the plate.  A simple, tasty Creole sauce covers the mound and there you have it.  Fried plantains stuffed with shrimp.

I can’t say I would order it for my last meal. The taste of the plantains alone was far more bland than I expected.  The pork rind added a pleasant bit of crunch to the otherwise smooth texture of the plantains, the shrimp and Creole sauce added flavor.  I couldn’t come close to eating it all.  The mashed plantains were heavy and extremely filling.  I managed to eat a respectable amount of plantain and, of course, all the shrimp.

Quinn’s kindergarten teacher came in with some friends while we were there and he was very proud of that.  Amber and David both gave their steaks a thumbs up.  We talked about making a return visit to El Tango.

Amber to David:  “I’d like to come back here sometime without kids.”

Quinn to Amber:  “I’d like to come back here without parents.”

Quinn is his father’s son.  It makes me smile.

 

Gorilla Barbeque

October 13, 2012 – Pacifica is only about eight miles south of the city of San Francisco but it might as well be on a different planet.  Oh sure, the traffic on California’s Highway 1 can get a bit congested but the community still has a small town feel.  Hard to believe it’s been a bedroom community to its larger neighbor to the north for decades, at least since some San Francisco folks built a golf course there in 1932.

Pacifica hasn’t always been called Pacifica.  A family named Anderson opened a store there around 1908. A few years later developers started building houses in the area to attract San Francisco residents  seeking to escape the growing city.  The town didn’t incorporate until the 1950s.  In 1957 they held a contest to choose a name.  The Pacifica entry was based on an 80 foot statue that the sculptor Ralph Stackpole created for the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939-40.  The original statue was destroyed after the exposition closed but two working models still exist and both can be found in Pacifica.

I had driven up Highway 1 on a search once again for barbeque but also because I just enjoy driving up that highway.  It skirts the shores of the Pacific, offering stunning views both inspiring and soul-soothing.  I was looking for Gorilla Barbeque, a place I had seen Guy Fieri feature on his popular Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives tv show.  Mapquest said the best route was a freeway going north through the heart of South Bay country.  Having never found anything either inspiring or soul-soothing on a crowded urban freeway, I opted for the slower but more satisfying route up the coast.

Just south of Davenport, I pulled over to spend a few minutes watching the waves crash on the beach far below.  On the far side of the highway I watched a farmer driving through his field in a pickup truck scaring off seagulls with a BB gun.  I think he stopped when he saw me watching.  I wanted to tell him not to be concerned about me.  The gulls had that whole big ocean on which to feed; I didn’t think they needed the farmer’s field, too.

As I got closer to Pacifica the scenery changed.  The road left the coast, climbing to wind through thick forests of eucalyptus trees before breaking out to return to the coast and weave its way among huge pillars of sandstone sculpted by centuries of winds blowing in from the mighty Pacific Ocean.  The town of Pacifica is nestled among those sculpted pillars.

Gorilla Barbeque sits right on Highway 1.  It’s both hard to spot and hard to miss:  hard to spot because the signs with the name aren’t easily readable while navigating what can be heavy traffic and hard to miss because it’s in an old, converted railroad car painted red.  The barbeque is prepared outdoors in a big smoker out behind the railroad car.  The sign says, “If it’s smokin’ we’re open.”  Their official hours are 12:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Wednesday through Monday but they warn that they sometimes run out of barbeque before closing time.  It’s takeout only and, while I was there, the line up the short flight of steps to the door and the corresponding procession of customers exiting down the same steps with their plastic bags stuffed with barbeque never ended.  But the wait to get in was short and to get my food after I’d ordered even shorter.

Gorilla Barbeque was opened in 2006 by two natives of Pacifica, Jeff Greathouse and Rich Bacci. They’re clearly passionate about producing good barbeque but they have a lot of fun, too.  Hey, they’re in an old, red railroad car.  If you go to their website (www.gorillabbq.com) you can hear the Gorilla Barbeque theme song, written and performed in a gutsy, gravelly Mississippi Delta style by the San Francisco piano-playing bluesman Jeffrey Chin.

I ordered the three meat special just because I wanted to sample as much as possible and so I’d have plenty to take home.  I got my plastic bag heavy with two cardboard containers of brisket, ribs, hot links, potato salad, corn, beans and cornbread.  Though the brightly helpful young lady who took my order had volunteered that there was a beach down the road a ways where I could take my food, I opted instead to climb a short hill behind the railroad car.  I found a set of railroad-tie steps in the shade to serve as a place to sit and dug in.  They had thoughtfully asked if I needed napkins and utensils so I was set.

The hot link was deliciously spicy, with a hint of fennel seed.  The brisket was moist and delicious.  The ribs were huge and perfectly smoked.  I was so busy eating and enjoying that at first I didn’t notice the black and white nose over my shoulder until it was almost into my box of barbeque.  One of the largest dogs I’ve ever seen, colored like a Dalmatian and larger than the legendary Hound of the Baskervilles had invited himself to share my lunch.  In as firm a voice as I could muster with the huge black and white jowls so near my throat, I said, “No, I’m not sharing.”  He looked at me with disdain and shoved his nose a little closer to my food.

I repeated, “’Did you hear me?  No, I’m not sharing.”  The second time he got the message and wandered morosely away.  It probably wasn’t the first time he’d suffered such rejection.  He might have been big but he was all bluff.

I made the drive back south on Highway 1 even more contented than on the drive north.  With my belly full of excellent barbeque, enough leftovers in the back seat to provide a couple more meals and the late afternoon light on the Pacific, it seemed like a pretty fair day.

Just south of Davenport the farmer’s pickup truck wasn’t in the field and the gulls had been replaced by blackbirds.

Stroube’s Chop House

September 24, 2012 – Baton Rouge is one of the country’s best kept secrets.  It’s a nice midsize city and it’s getting better.  The cultural offerings have always been diverse and vibrant.  The city’s restaurants are among the best in a state that measures everything by the quality of the food involved.

A few years ago the company in which I was a senior executive was sold and suddenly I was free to go anywhere I wanted.  After more than 40 years in Alaska, I decided I needed to thaw out and I wanted to know what it was like to be in Louisiana, the state in which I was born and which I left with my parents headed north to Alaska when I was 12.  I knew I wouldn’t be leaving Alaska forever.  Alaska is home and always will be.  But thawing out from time to time is good and so is returning occasionally to your roots.

During the years I was in Baton Rouge I was fortunate to have Gerard and Selma Ruth as neighbors.  Now in his 80s, Gerard has been in the furniture business in Baton Rouge for more than 60 years.  Everyone in that part of the country knows Gerard and everyone knows he’s one of a kind.  I learned early on that Gerard is a born salesman and sometimes he tries to sell you the damnedest things.  Like the time he called me and said, “You’ll never guess what I’ve just done for you.”

“What’s that, Gerard?” I replied, already getting a little scared.

He  told me that he was going to let one of the many organizations of which he’s a member sponsor my annual fall cochon de lait.

“No, you’re not, Gerard.”  And that, I learned, was the way to deal with Gerard.

Selma is a treasure.  In the years that I lived next door to the Ruths, Selma took care of me.  She checked on me when I was sick.  When I traveled she looked after my house and picked up my mail.  And she always had this incredibly wonderful chocolate pie ready for me after one of the countless meals the three of us shared together.

When I’m back in Baton Rouge I always reserve one evening for dinner with Gerard and Selma.  On this trip I had read about the recently opened Stroube’s (pronounced Stru’-be)  Chop House in the center of downtown Baton Rouge, across the street from the Old State Capitol.  Stroube’s was originally a pharmacy dating from the early 20th century and the restaurant has retained the name.

We found a parking place on the narrow, 19th century street in the heart of old downtown Baton Rouge just across the newly opened North Boulevard Town Square from Stroube’s.  At first glance the modernist park with its scattering of small aluminum tables and chairs seems out of place sandwiched between the castle-like appearance of the old State Capitol and the Deep South Old Governor’s Mansion.  But the soft swing music coming from somewhere among the trees, swirling through the still sultry southern evening, quickly pulls you into a relaxed urban mood.

Selma had made our reservations and told the young lady manning the desk that they were for six, meaning 6:00.  The young lady disappeared and for better than five minutes we stood perplexed as we watched the wait staff huddle among themselves.  A young man in an orange shirt almost completely unbuttoned to show the white tee shirt beneath it was consulted but seemed unconcerned and quickly disappeared.   Finally I asked if there was a problem.  The young lady said they were trying to figure out where to seat six of us.  We explained the misunderstanding to a now very embarrassed young lady.

Meanwhile Gerard, in his singular way, had already solved the problem.  While the staff huddled and consulted, and Selma and I waited patiently, he had simply walked through the restaurant, found a table he liked and sat down.  The young hostess escorted Selma and me to Gerard’s table.

Our waitress was young, enthusiastic and helpful though a bit confused about some of the menu items.  The menu itself was excellent, offering a sufficient selection of my favorite Louisiana foods that it took me longer than usual to decide.  Predictably Selma had a small filet.  Gerard and I ordered ribeyes.   Gerard had his customary wedge salad.  I decided to try the oyster and duck gumbo.  I ordered mushroom risotto and collard greens with ham hocks as sides.

The gumbo wasn’t bad.  There was only one small oyster, which was a disappointment, some shreds of duck and lots of tasso.  Fortunately I like tasso.

The steaks were good.  But the sides were the best dishes on the table.  The risotto with mushrooms and parmesan was terrific.  The mushrooms were a pleasingly smoky flavor addition and the parmesan made the risotto even creamier .  The collard greens with ham hocks were a delectable clash of sweet and slightly bitter that made my taste buds sparkle.  Both were excellent pairings for the steaks.

Stroube’s is a good restaurant.  But it’s not a great restaurant.  It does, however, have promise.  The menu is creative, combining traditional steakhouse offerings and Louisiana favorites with a few adventurous variations tossed in.  Individual dishes brought to the table were excellent but the dining experience as a whole just doesn’t seem quite perfected.

They might consider focusing on management to avoid embarrassing scenes such as we endured on arrival.  It was a simple semantic misunderstanding that should have been easily and quickly resolved but instead made all of us uncomfortable, the result of inexperienced people with little apparent guidance.  When you enter a restaurant you want to feel like they’re glad to see you.  The feeling we got on entering Stroube’s was they didn’t know we were coming and didn’t quite know what to do with us.  Not a good feeling.

After dinner we returned to Gerard and Selma’s house where Selma had my favorite chocolate pie waiting.  She gave up cooking when her youngest child left home.  The pies she buys at the downtown Baton Rouge Saturday Farmer’s Market and she always makes sure she has one on hand when I’m in town.  For me, a visit to Baton Rouge isn’t complete without an after dinner slice of Selma’s chocolate pie with a cold glass of milk.  Just not complete.

 

Hill Country

February-March, 2012 – I spent five weeks of torturous hell in Washington, D.C., during the winter and early spring of 2012 closing down my townhouse there.  Back in the days when I was single the townhouse was great.  I would go to D.C. for three or four weeks at a time, mainly because I’d just as soon be there as anywhere else.  The townhouse was very cost effective in those days.

My wife named it the House on the Hill.  It was at 127 3rd Street Northeast near Constitution Avenue, two blocks behind the capitol, a block behind the Supreme Court and a block from the Senate office buildings.  In the six years that the House on the Hill was my Washington, D.C., home I never got over the fascination of living in a house that was built in 1884.  Chester Alan Arthur was president when it was built.  Within a few months Grover Cleveland would begin the first of his two split terms.  In the southwest, Geronimo was still leading the U.S. army on a wild chase.  The drafty old house with its high ceilings and steep, narrow staircase never lost its air of mystery for me.

When I first moved in I signed up with a security service.  They wired all the doors and windows and installed the box to enter the code.  The first night that the system was activated I was awakened at 4:00 a.m. by the alarm going off.  While I was stumbling around trying to find a light switch the phone rang.  It was the security company.  “Do you have a problem?” the lady on the phone asked.  I said I didn’t know.  I was sound asleep and the alarm went off.  That’s all I knew.  “Well, then,” she said, “you’d better call the police,” and she hung up.  I called the police.  Four really big officers showed up within five minutes, checked the house and discovered only a short in the wire that had been installed the day before on a window at the back of the house.  Later that day I called the security company and cancelled the service.  If I had to call the police myself I figured I might as well do it for free.

I never had any mail directed to the House on the Hill.  That was probably because of the mailman who I met the first week I was there.  The house had no mailbox but rather a mail slot in the door.  I’d never had a house with a mail slot before.  I happened to be on the front steps one day when the mailman came by so I asked him if the proper procedure when I wanted to mail something was to place it half out of the slot so he could see it.  He looked at the steps going up to the front door and offered the advice that, “No, you’d be better off to put it in the box on the corner ‘cause some days I just don’t feel like going up those steps.”  I figured that was good advice.

The big old house was a great place to host functions.  We had some great parties there.  The best of all was also one of the last, the Alaska State Society Christmas party in 2010.  The original 126 year old floors creaked under the weight of the crowd.  Every room downstairs was packed with Alaskans, people who wished they were Alaskans and, this being D.C., those desperately trying to pretend to be Alaskan to gain the favor of our talented Congressional delegation.  There were several well-known, even famous Alaskans there, including Bill Sheffield, the then 83 year old former governor.

Shutting the house down quickly became a logistical nightmare.  In the past when I moved out of a house I always had another house to which I wanted the furniture and household items sent.  This time, with the exception of artwork and personal items, I had no use for any of the items filling the living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms and office.  Have you ever tried to get rid of a house full of furniture?  I can tell you it’s damned hard to do.

I got very excited when I talked to an estate sale company.  On the phone they said they’d buy everything, give me a check and take it all away.  Then they came over and took a look.  The next day they called back and said that except for the artwork, which I wouldn’t let them have, there was nothing there that they could sell.  Well, that was a little depressing.

Over the next two or three weeks, I sold a few items to friends and shipped a few boxes to Alaska.  Then I found an auction house that really did come and take everything away.  Their deal was they’d sell it for what they could get, take their cut and mail me a check.  I thought I’d be lucky if I saw a hundred bucks out of the deal but at least the house was finally empty.  I was very pleasantly surprised a few weeks later when I got a check in the mail large enough to cover the cost of the shipping I had done.  Didn’t make money but at least I broke even.

When I decided it was time to close down the house, my old Juneau political buddy Rich Listowski came to town to help me pack up.  It was a moment fraught with some anxiety for Rich.  For years I have been providing him with vacation destinations.  For several years he had come to Baton Rouge for the fall cochon de lait with a side trip to New Orleans to make the rounds of the great restaurants and catch a Saints game.  In the spring he would come to D.C. and we would head out on day trips.  One year it was a memorable visit to the Antietam Battlefield; another year it was Gettysburg.  This year it was packing boxes.  Rich was a great help but now he feared his choice of vacation destinations was being cut back.

The one constant with Rich’s visits is finding new restaurants with great food.  I also had clients coming to town who would be hungry.  I had read about Hill Country, a new barbeque joint that had opened in northwest D.C.  It seemed like the time to try it.

I walked in that evening with Rich, Brenda Shepard, CEO of TelAlaska, Dave Dengel, CEO of Copper Valley Telephone Cooperative in Valdez, and Jeff Smith, a consultant with GVNW in Portland, OR.  We thought we were in the Texas hill country.  The décor was perfect for a Texas honky tonk.  Just the right neon beer signs, long wood tables, rolls of paper towels on the tables.  And the food.  Oh yeah, it was Texas que for sure.

A waitress brought us drinks and gave us meal tickets.  To get food, we had to take the meal tickets and go through a semi cafeteria style arrangement.  First to the meat stands, where I got three slices of wet brisket (as opposed to dry) and two large spareribs.  Couldn’t pass up collard greens and corn bread over on the full cafeteria section with all the sides.

It was all good but the brisket was over the top.  Brisket is very difficult to prepare.  If not done right it’s dry, chewy and requires a sip of some liquid to help it go down.  I wondered briefly what Hill Country’s advertised dry brisket was like but didn’t really care.  The wet brisket was perfect.  The best I’ve ever had.  I hardly noticed the spareribs and they were spectacular by themselves.

We liked Hill Country so much that the next night the whole group went back to take another client, Steve Merriam, CEO of Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative, headquartered in Anchorage, who had arrived late the night before.  Well known for his appetite, we were confident that Steve could polish off the sampler of a little bit of everything that Hill Country offers.  He did.

A few weeks later Todd Hoppe, CEO of Bristol Bay Telephone Cooperative in King Salmon, was in town and off I went for a third visit to Hill Country.  Again with the wet brisket.  Didn’t even bother with the spareribs.  And this time we let the waitress talk us into banana pudding, the traditional southern dessert that so completely tops off a barbeque dinner.

Restaurants in D.C. open and close with the frequency of popping corn.  I sincerely hope Hill Country beats the odds.

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